Contemporary American horror’s obsession with morality and psychotherapy can really be a downer. In 2002, Gore Verbinski expertly remade the J-horror hit Ringu with a layered story about a single mother (Naomi Watts) who watches a cursed videotape. To stop the curse, she travels through the warped psyche of the ghost of Samara — the long-haired, double-jointed ghoul girl in the video — with the hope that finding the root of her evil and putting her soul to rest will break the curse. Not so; sometimes evil’s just evil.
You might think that lesson couldn’t be learned again and again, but you would be wrong. The Ring 2 found Watts’ character putting Samara back on the therapist’s couch, getting the dirt on her mommy issues. And now 15 years later, Rings, directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez, goes to group therapy, reimagining Samara’s mother Evelyn’s origins, as another young woman, Julia (Matilda Lutz), is fooled into trying to figure out why she’s just so evil. Won’t these women ever learn? Honestly, it’s like watching liberals try to figure out Trump supporters — don’t analyze, just come up with a damn plan to survive.
In this newest incarnation of The Ring, Julia’s in love with her hot, young boyfriend, Holt (Alex Roe), who goes off to college without her. We know Julia’s a moral person, because Holt mentions that her staying at home with her presumably sick (but absent) mother is the right thing to do. When Julia gets a bizarre Skype call from Holt’s computer, she drives to his school to investigate and is immediately sucked into an extracurricular cursed-video-watching club organized by a professor (Johnny Galecki) bent on proving the validity of his theories about the afterlife being accessible through tape.
Skye (Aimee Teegarden), the professor’s student (and girlfriend — ugh), is marked for death after watching the tape and can’t find what the club calls a “tail”: someone the usual Ring curse, which is somehow transmissible, can be passed on to. She tries to make Julia this person, but instead Julia winds up witnessing Skye’s gruesome death at the hands of Samara, which makes it doubly confusing that — with no hesitation at all — Julia later chooses to watch the video herself in order to free Holt from the curse. She’s seen what it can do firsthand! Unfortunately for her, Samara has encoded a secret message into the tape, and it’s up to Julia to follow the clues to release Samara from her pain.
Unlike Naomi Watts’ character in the first two films, Julia and Holt are undistinguished by complexity. They’re lovey-dovey and devoted. Julia doesn’t even resent that Holt gets to live his new college lifestyle while she’s left behind. In the originals, Watts’ character was building a career while caring for a difficult (“special”) child she maybe didn’t quite love. She was rounded, while these kids are squares in hot young bodies.
The couple get no more interesting once they’re finally out of the campus safety zone. They travel to a small town still recovering from a devastating flood from 30 years earlier, where they annoy a tight-lipped innkeeper who’d rather not talk about Evelyn and a blinded AA leader who watches over the old cemetery grounds. These encounters offer no character revelations, and the film never acknowledges that these two outsiders might clash with the old, disgruntled working folks of the town, who blame Samara’s ghost for the flood, and thus all their problems.
Most recently, David Sandberg’s Lights Out (2016) fell into the same trap of spinning its wheels to give overwrought and maudlin reason to his long-clawed, shadow-dwelling villain. In Japan, Koji Shiraishi took the Ring franchise somewhere more interesting with his film Sadako vs. Kayako (i.e. The Ring vs. The Grudge). Shiraishi understood that Japanese audiences would simply accept the evil of this little monster at this point — how many more people does she need to kill to convince American producers? That settled, Shiraishi spent his time not on tragic backstory but on crafting scenes full of big laughs piggy-backing on some disturbing and visually stunning scares. Humor and horror are not mutually exclusive.
The image of Samara contorting her waterlogged body and swinging around her dreaded-out locks is still the most satisfying constant of the American Ring films. No matter how hard anyone tries to save her, this soggy nightmare just keeps on creeping out of the TV like it’s her job. It’d be even better if everyone just let her be evil. I mean, could you imagine if the Nightmare on Elm Street series had always been about male characters trying to understand Freddy Krueger’s pain?